Monday, December 10, 2012

Pharming* on Phillips Ridge

I went for a solo tour on Phillips Ridge, the conditions were great: 35-40" base, stable and well-consolidated with boot-top whipped cream on top. I did a half-dozen laps and never crossed a track that wasn't my own. I'd say ski season is officially here!

*Not a drug reference; I just couldn't resist the visual alliteration. 

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Hedge clippers in the park

Although the mountain snowpack is the deepest in 15 years for early December, the valley floor isn't doing so well. Yesterday morning was the first time we've had snow in our yard this winter, about 6" worth.

I went to the Taggart Lake trailhead for a quick fishscale tour on a cold afternoon (11F, winds 5-10 mph). There wasn't any more snow there (6800') than there was at my house, which surprised me a little; only about 6-8" total, and less than that in some spots. The good news is that the bottom 3-4" was old snow that had turned almost bulletproof after last week's rain. That made for a good firm base to ski on.

There was a NY Times article a few days ago about how some nordic ski areas in New England have started snowmaking. "The number of days with snow on the ground in a typical year shrank by more than a month between 1965 and 2005, according to a study by University of New Hampshire researchers that appeared in the Journal of Geophysical Research in 2008."  

Friday, December 7, 2012

First turns for the season

Jill and I went for a short shakedown cruise up on Teton Pass today. We got home from SE Asia two weeks ago, ready to ski but our enthusiasm was quite literally dampened by all the rain we've had here in the valley.

I was breaking in a new pair of ski boot liners, yeah they feel great fresh out of the oven in the shop but the real world is always more complicated. For the first half hour or so, it seemed like I had to adjust buckles every thirty or forty strides. The left boot is dialed in nicely now, the right boot still needs some tweaking before it will be good to go all-day.

We did a tour out to Mount Elly, and made some turns in Olympic Bowl. Considering how warm it has been (low thirties at the top of the Pass) both of us were surprised by how good the snow was. It wasn't deep or light, but it was very skiable. Aspects with more southerly exposure didn't look as inviting. We finished off with a short beacon practice session, and then headed out. The grass in the yard is still very brown...

Monday, December 3, 2012

the last part about Nepal

.. continued from Part 4
Just want to see the pictures? Follow these...
Our last full day in Kathmandu was originally planned as free time on our own, but better things were in store...
We had booked the trek through REI Adventures, their Everest Lodge-to-Lodge Trek. The REI people were great, including their travel agent Dan Marks who did all of the flight booking for Lee, Jill, and I on some complicated itineraries. But as you might expect (at least if you're a veteran world traveler), REI does not actually run the tour. In this case, the local tour operator is a company called Last Frontiers Trekking. Last Frontiers has been the REI partner in Nepal for many years. The company was founded by, and is owned by, Mingma Dorje Sherpa. We spent several hours chatting with him over coffee on the previous day, while we were waiting for our hotel rooms to become available. He has an impressive range of business interests in Nepal, even more impressive having started out simply as the son of a well-known Everest porter. I enjoyed talking with him...
One of his businesses is a small elegant lodge in the hills above Kathmandu, called Chhahari Lodge. (They don't have a web site, but they do have a Facebook page). Mingma invited our group up to the lodge for lunch and an afternoon respite. We all said yes, of course!

So we spent our final afternoon in Kathmandu enjoying the views and serenity in a quiet lodge up in the hills -- what a lovely place! I would definitely recommend it as an escape from the noise and crowds of Kathmandu proper. 
That evening our group got together for drinks on the rooftop terrace at the hotel, and then said our goodbyes over dinner in the Indian restaurant at the hotel. Most of our group would be heading back to the US the next day; Scott was headed for another part of Nepal for a few days, Terrie was going to India to meet a friend for a couple weeks, Lee and I were off to Hanoi where Jill would meet us for the next adventure.
Some random thoughts about Nepal, Kathmandu, and trekking in the Khumbu region
  • I was very impressed with how well the trek was managed. The best way I can describe it is "carefully planned and meticulously executed". I never saw so much as a hiccup regarding meals (including four birthday/anniversary cakes), and daily tea, and baggage, and leadership on the trail, and ...  I was quite satisfied with Team Kilimanjaro on our Kili trip last year, but this trip was a noticeably crisper operation. Big props to Last Frontiers Trekking and our lead guide Nima Tenzing Sherpa.
  • Would I go back? Yes, absolutely! ... though maybe not to the Khumbu unless it was for a more remote trek. The sheer number of people on the trail got to be tiring after a while, it was like hiking the Hidden Falls trail in Grand Teton Park in mid-summer, or the Bright Angel trail from the south rim of the Grand Canyon. Getting off the main corridor trail was much more enjoyable.
  • Would I do it on my own, without a tour operator? Yes, having been there I can see where it would be easy to hire a porter or two and do a totally on-your-own trek, no problem. But one thing I really liked about the REI/Last Frontiers arrangement was that we had our own kitchen crew. The guide was emphatic about us "only eating food that we prepare for you" in order to minimize the risk of getting some food- or water-borne bugs. A few people in our group did have some GI issues (I didn't), but I thought this approach was a big plus compared to randomly picking guest houses and cafes along the way.
  • Kathmandu wasn't as bad as I expected. One acquaintance of mine has been to Nepal a dozen times, she warned "Kathmandu is a sh**hole". Well, it wasn't clean, or quiet, and in the tourist areas the shop clerks were not easily discouraged. But it was much cleaner and quieter than Arusha in Tanzania, which was my previous experience with Third-World-get-me-outta-here-now noise and air pollution and aggressive touts. After a total of four nights in Kathmandu, I felt like I was done with the place; but it wasn't like Arusha where I hated to even go outside the hotel room. Walking the streets in Kathmandu outside of the tourist area, in the local market areas, was quite a lot of fun; we were the only non-Nepalese around, nobody hassled us or tried to sell us something, or tried to convince us to hire them as local guides.
  • The scale of the landscape here is staggering. When I go from Jackson to, say, the Selkirk backcountry in British Columbia, I am blown away by the scale of the scenery there compared to what I see at home (which is gorgeous in its own right). The Khumbu region of Nepal is that much more again.... wow, this place is ...
    Absolutely. Spectacular

A trip to Nepal -- Part 4

... continued from Part 3
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We started Day 7 with a one-hour walk up the hill to the Thame Monastery at 13,100'. That was the highest elevation we reached on our trek. The monastery there is smaller than the ones we saw at Tengboche and Khumjung; it had a very intimate feel to it. 
And it's all downhill from here, or at least mostly downhill. We headed down the Bhote Kosi valley back to Namche Bazar, and stayed at the Hotel Snow Land again. This time we have sunny skies in Namche. Though we didn't get a room with killer views, it's still a pretty nice spot. After six nights on the trail, I decided it was worth throwing down a few hundred rupees for a hot shower; it felt pretty good! The propane-fired shower there at the hotel was a bit dodgy; Melissa and Lee both got the cold-water versions :( 
For Day 8, we walked from Namche Bazar back to Phakding where we had spent the first night on the trek. We did finally see some danfe, or Himalayan Monal  (pheasant). It is the national bird of Nepal, the males are a brilliant blue color. My pictures didn't turn out very well, so you'll have to rely on the picture from Wikipedia. When we got to Phakding, the skies were still bluebird and temperatures were in the upper 50s. Our guides and cook crew said "come on into the dining room for afternoon tea", but Lee, Howard, Karen, and I couldn't resist having a beer in the sunshine out on the patio.
Day 9 was the last trekking day; we walked from Phakding back to Lukla. It all seemed a bit anti-climactic except for the promise of hot showers at the hotel in Lukla. Yes, you read it correctly, hot showers. The Hotel La Villa Sherpani had a large water tank on the roof, made of black plastic to serve as a solar hot water heater. Our room there was quite nice, ensuite toilet and shower, even a telephone! Unfortunately the sliding door for the bathroom didn't work, so Lee and I took turns sitting in the sun outside, giving the other some privacy to take a not-hot-but-definitely-quite-warm shower. Our hotel room was right next to the airport runway, like maybe 30 feet from edge of the runway. It was noisy, but we had a good time sitting outside, drinking beers and watching the takeoffs and landings.
That afternoon we collected all the tip money for our group (averaged $330 each, in case you were wondering). After dinner, we had a tipping ceremony for the staff, all 18 of them. There was a large table piled high with gear that each of us was leaving behind as donations to the staff -- hats, gloves, jackets, sweaters, boots, and such -- that was parceled out to each member of the trekking staff by random drawing. Following those ceremonies, there was dancing to a mixture of pop and traditional Nepalese music; how did we ever have a party without an iPod? Everybody joined in the dancing around the fireplace in the dining room (yes, even me and Greg!) Some of the assistant guides were really styling on with the dance moves; our guide Tenzing explained that it is very common for Nepalese men to dance, often by themselves, sort of strutting their stuff for the ladies -- and that Nepalese women tend not to dance as much as the men do in that sort of gathering. Interesting...
Our trekking plans for Day 10 were very simple: fly from Lukla back to Kathmandu. When the weather in Lukla turns bad, all flight operations shut down, sometimes for days. The good news was we currently had clear weather. The bad news was
  1. Saturday (our Day 10) was scheduled to have the highest number of air passengers for the entire season. Between Tara Air (our airline), Yeti Air, and other airlines, there were 75 flights scheduled out of Lukla on Saturday. Even on the best day, it was highly unlikely that all 75 flights would operate before dark. We were reserved on flight number 25.
  2. The weather forecast was for increasing clouds and continuing bad weather starting sometime mid-day on Saturday. For Sunday and after that, the weather forecast was not looking good for flight operations. In previous years, the airport has been shut down for as much as a week at a time, causing food and hotel room shortages in Lukla
The good news was, our tour operator definitely had some clout. After dinner, our guide informed us that we were now rescheduled for the first flight out in the morning; the plane had come in just before dark and was overnighting in Lukla. Our guides were scheduled on a much later flight, and it looked like they might be spending some extra nights in Lukla. There was one other tiny bit of bad news: the 4:00 am wakeup call. So we had breakfast at 4:30 am, and at 5:30 we left the hotel for the 5-minute walk in the dark to the airport.
Not long after sunrise, we boarded the plane and our flight was indeed the first departure from Lukla that morning. I have to wonder how many strings got pulled to make that happen, but more about that later. At 7:30 am we were back at our hotel in Kathmandu. Of course our rooms weren't ready at that hour, so we spent most of the morning in the dining room, drinking coffee and chatting with the owner of the tour company. 
Shortly before lunchtime, our rooms became available and we went for the hot shower routine. Since Lee and I were heading for Vietnam after this trip and needed some clean clothes for that, we sent 2 large bags down for laundry service. (Between the two of us, it cost us almost $50 for laundry!). 
That afternoon, Greg, Dianne, Terrie, Lee, and I took a taxi to the CIWEC Clinic, a travel medicine center in Kathmandu. Dr David Shlim in Jackson was the medical director there for many years, and he had sent a duffel bag of medical supplies over with Lee as checked baggage. We retrieved his now-empty duffel bag, and walked the streets of Kathmandu over to the Thamel district for another meal at the Rum Doodle Bar. They really do have world-class pizza there...
After Thamel, we negotiated a taxi to take the five of us (Greg, Dianne, Lee, Terrie, me) over to the Tibetan Refugee Camp, and then to Boudhanath, for some final shopping. Five passengers plus the driver in a Suzuki Swift -- the standard taxi in Kathmandu -- is a very tight squeeze, at least for those in the back seat; I rode shotgun. As night fell in Kathmandu, we were having dinner in the Stupa View Restaurant overlooking the stupa at Boudhanath. The food was great (thanks Dr Shlim for the recommendation) but I was a tired whipped puppy after a long day that started at 4:00 am.
...continued in the final part

A trip to Nepal -- Part 3

... continued from Part 2
Just want to see the pictures? Follow these...
For Day 5, our destination is Khumjung (12,434’). We headed back down the busy main trail (busy, as in hundreds of trekkers daily) for a few hours until we reach the trail junction for Khumjung. You might notice the sign says 2 hours to Tengboche, 20 minutes to Khumjung, for a total of 2:20. We did it in 4:30 flat: yep, a gentle pace indeed. Once we leave the main trail between Lukla - Namche Bazar - Tengboche, there is a dramatic reduction in the volume of traffic on the trail; we don't have the trail to ourselves, but it is much more peaceful.

The village of Khumjung sets in a broad kilometer-wide valley, much different from the ruggedly narrow valleys we've been in from Lukla to Tengboche. Khumjung is home to the Khumjung Secondary School, founded by Sir Edmund Hilary in 1961; it is the only secondary school in the Khumbu region. On a hill outside the village there is a chorten dedicated to Hilary; he is highly revered in this part of Nepal.
Khumjung does have a fair supply of trekking lodges and craft vendors, but much less so than anyplace else we've been so far. It has a much more authentic feel to it; the small farm plots (potatoes, mostly) are ringed by stone fences, and it is clear that the valley is not totally dependent on tourist business. 
Khumjung is also home to a small monastery. The monastery is no longer active (no monks living there) and is only used on special occasions. However, the temple does house a yeti scalp in a locked cabinet (!). After we all contributed some rupees, the caretaker unlocked the cabinet for our viewing pleasure. I won't waste pixels here on the picture I took, you can Google "yeti scalp Khumjung" if want to see some pictures. Some scientific analyses have indicated that it was once part of an antelope rump; but hey, I've paid more and got less ... I mean, how often do you get a roadside attraction tourist trap that is a yeti skull?
In Khumjung, we stayed at the Sherpa Land Lodge and Restaurant, "Internet Service and Wi-Fi available". Surprising, perhaps, but typical of most of the lodges we've seen. We also have great cell phone service, four bars worth. We've had good cellphone service all along the trek, and the guide says there is good coverage all the way to Everest Base Camp. Nonetheless, the toilets are down the hall and there is only cold running water in the sink; I'm not complaining here, just reporting...
On Day 6, we headed up over a low saddle, passed the Syangboche airstrip that we saw on Day 3, and headed up the Bhote Kosi valley to the small village of Thame. Bhote Kosi means "river from Tibet"; this was (and is) a major trade route from the Khumbu region of Nepal over into Tibet and eventually into China.  I'm quite taken with the beauty of this valley, the views east and downstream to the peaks Kangtega and Thamserku, and the peaks Nupla, Tarukha, and Teng Kang Poche to our south. These peaks are all "just" 6000m-class peaks, but they are stunning nonetheless.
Thame is a small village at 12,467'. We stayed at the Everest Summiteer Lodge, which is owned by Apa Sherpa. He holds the record for the most times summiting Mount Everest: 21 times as of 2011. The dining room walls are covered with framed certificates from the Guinness Book of World Records for each time he set a new record, as well as other mementos. He now lives in Salt Lake City, and it was a bit incongruous to also see framed certificates for his children making the honor roll at Alta High School! Speaking of incongruous, there was a television in the dining room, and the innkeepers' two young children (ages 4 or 5) spent hours watching the Cartoon Channel (yes, in English). For the record, we had great views from our lodge room, and the toilets were down the hall.
We had clear skies and spectacular views in Thame. Our guide was equally amazed, he said it was the first time he had ever been in Thame without clouds and fog. I had taken lots of pictures of Everest and Ama Dablam and etc on this trip, but I absolutely fell in love with the views here in Thame. Looks vaguely like the Tetons from the Jackson Hole side, doesn't it?
continued in Part 4 ...

Sunday, December 2, 2012

A trip to Nepal -- Part 2

... continued from Part 1
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Our destination for Day 2 was the village of Namche Bazar, at an elevation of 11,286'. We officially entered the Sagarmatha National Park -- I say officially because trekking permits are required, and were checked at the entrance station and periodically along the trail. Sagarmatha is the Nepalese name for Mount Everest; however, that name was only coined in the 1960s to supplant the Tibetan (and Chinese) name Chomolungma which has been in use for several centuries. I've been trying to adopt the practice of referring to places in foreign countries by their "native" names, but saying "Everest" is a hard habit to break... 
The trail spent most of the morning winding along the Dudh Kosi ("Milk River"). A friend of mine was part of the first descent of the Dudh Kosi in 1972; seeing the river firsthand, I'm very impressed and can't help but try to imagine what this area looked like then, and what kind of outrageous adventure it must have been.
Leaving the Dudh Kosi, the trail climbed steeply to Namche Bazar (or Bazaar, but the Nepalese spelling is Bazar). Namche Bazar is a village of some 2000 people; as you might guess from the name, it is the main trading center in the Khumbu region of Nepal, and is also the main gateway for trekkers and climbers going into the Himalayas. Most of the buildings that you see in the pictures of Namche are hotels, restaurants, and shops catering to trekkers. There is also a busy Nepali street market. We stayed at the Hotel Snow Land; Lee and I scored a corner room on the top floor with great views overlooking the village. Alas, only cold running water in the shower; propane-fired hot showers were available in a booth at the back of the hotel for a few hundred rupees (two or three dollars).
Namche Bazar is busy enough to support three tourist bars; I couldn't resist the incongruity of having a beer at the "Irish Pub" in Namche, so several of us met there for cocktail hour. There wasn't anything Irish about the place, and unfortunately Guinness was not on draft. In fact, there weren't any beers on draft, which isn't all that surprising when you consider it all has to be carried to Namche on a porter's back. They did have cans of Guinness for some outrageous price (like $7.00 US) so I settled for a $1.50 San Miguel. 
Our itinerary called for two nights in Namche Bazar, intended to let us acclimate to the altitude. On the layover day, we did a dayhike to the Hotel Everest View, at 12,730' it bills itself as "the highest placed hotel in the world". (I wonder about hotels in Peru and Bolivia though...). There was one Everest viewpoint yesterday on the trail up to Namche Bazar, but the mountains were totally clouded over then. The typical weather pattern for this time of year is clear in the mornings, and clouding up as the day goes on. So, we haven't had any views of Everest yet, until we round a corner on the trail, and wow! Cholatse (20,784'), Taboche Peak (21,309'), Everest (29,029'), Lhotse (27,940'), and Ama Dablam (22,349'). Mount Everest is the one with the cloud coming off the summit block.
As you can see, the weather was perfect. We parked ourselves on the deck at the Hotel Everest View, ordered hot chocolate and snacks, relaxed in the sun, and gloried in the view.
On Day 4, we spent 7 hours walking from Namche Bazar to the smaller village of Tengboche (12,717'). Yes, it was a gentle pace. David Shlim (our travel medicine doc in Jackson, who spent some 15 years in Nepal) had told us that, of anywhere in the Khumbu region, Tengboche has the best views of Everest. Well, on a gray cloudy afternoon, maybe not so much. 
Tengboche is home to an active Tibetan monastery, housing some sixty monks. They were conducting afternoon prayers when we arrived, and the temple was open to visitors. There were perhaps fifteen monks participating in the afternoon prayers, and fifty shoeless trekkers sitting on the floor in the back of the room. Of course I didn't understand a word I heard, and had no clue about the symbolism in the elaborate carvings, paintings, and figurines in the temple; nonetheless, it was interesting to watch and listen for a while.
The lodge in Tengboche was more rustic than our previous accommodations. No ensuite facilities here, but there were two toilet rooms at the end of the hall: one with a Western-style throne toilet and one with the typical Nepal porcelain trench on the floor. Lee and I landed a room on the Everest-facing side of the lodge, and we had high hopes for the morning sunrise views. We were not disappointed...
Yes, that was the view from our room: Everest, Lhotse, and Ama Dablam. It had snowed briefly the previous evening, then cleared off to a nearly full moon and spectacular views of enormous snowy mountains on a clear night. The morning was cold, it was 32F inside our room before we opened the window to take pictures. It wasn't much colder outside, about 25F.
After breakfast and "please just a few more minutes here for pictures", it was time to leave Tengboche and head back down the trail for a few hours.

continued in Part 3 ...

Saturday, December 1, 2012

A trip to Nepal -- Part 1

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Back in November 2011, my friend Greg emailed to say that viewing Everest had been on his bucket list for almost thirty years, and that he had booked a trekking trip to go do it. Trekking in Nepal has been on my to-do list as well, so I signed on shortly thereafter.

Jill decided to skip this trip. She went trekking in the same area back in the mid-1980s -- before it was spoiled, so to speak -- and didn't want to ruin those memories by seeing how the area had changed. Greg's wife Dianne decided to go, and our friend Lee signed on as well. This trek was a bit too tame for Lee's boyfriend (he summited Ama Dablam a couple years ago), so Lee and I went as roomies. (Thus explaining the blond woman in the hotel room pictures...) Terrie signed up a couple months later, so our crew made up 5 of the 14 slots on the trek.

We bought plane tickets in May, boarded the plane in Jackson on 20 October, and arrived in Kathmandu on the 22nd. Korean Air is my new favorite airline: lots of legroom, comfortable seats, good service, and a USB charging port at every seat!

The arrival day in Kathmandu was mostly unstructured time. After checking in to the hotel and unpacking our bags, the five of us squeezed into a taxi to the Thamel district (the backpackers/foreign-travelers part of the city) to look around, do a little shopping, and find some dinner. Traffic in Kathmandu was crazy, though not quite as bad as I had expected it to be. It turned out that we had arrived during Dashain, a major religious festival/holiday, so traffic volume was much lighter than usual. After a few days I acclimated enough that I could ride in the front seat of a taxi without stomping my foot on the brake pedal that wasn't there.

For the second day, our trekking package included a guided tour of some of the sights around Kathmandu.We visited the Boudhanath, one of the holiest Buddhist sites in Nepal; the picture above is the stupa at Boudhanath. It is an impressive monument, and a serene spot in spite of the crowds. After lunch in a Tibetan restaurant, we were off to the Monkey Temple (named for the sacred monkeys there) and then the Durbar Square area in Patan for more ancient temples and royal residences.

The next morning, we had a break-of-daylight departure from the hotel to the airport. We flew from Kathmandu to Lukla, a 27-minute flight into the most dramatic airport I've ever seen. Landing at Lukla (elevation 9380'),  the very short runway ends in a vertical wall of granite; taking off, the runway ends when the ground suddenly disappears down a 1000-foot cliff. No second chances here... On the left side of the plane we had spectacular views of the Himalaya, and the view on the right side was almost as amazing. The plane was a Twin Otter, a classic short takeoff/landing aircraft. There was no door between the cockpit and the passenger cabin; it was very interesting to watch through the cockpit windscreen during the approach and landing.

After arriving in Lukla, we walked over to a nearby hotel. The porters carried our duffel bags from the airport. We had tea on the lawn, and sorted through duffel bags and daypacks for some last-minute equipment shuffling. At 9:30 am, we started walking and were finally officially trekking in Nepal! 
There are no motor vehicles driving around Lukla except for very few motorbikes. The streets are crowded with trekkers' hotels, equipment shops, and restaurants; it's a busy place. After ten minutes or so, we were outside of the town. Since there aren't any roads in this region, the trail is the main thoroughfare for the Khumbu region. The trail is a busy mix of trekkers with daypacks or backpacks, locals on their way to wherever, porters carrying staggering loads suspended from their heads, and other beasts of burden.
Our group casts a large footprint on the trail, perhaps larger than some other trekking groups because we have our own kitchen team. We have 14 trekkers, 1 chief guide, 3 assistant guides, a cook and an assistant cook, a sirdar (chief of porters), 3 porters, 7 kitchen boys, a dzopio driver, and a packstring of dzopios. (A dzopio is a cow-yak cross, used as a beast of burden). While we're on the trail, it's just us and the guides hiking together, while the support staff is well ahead of us. The guides set a slow hiking pace; not as slow as the pole-pole pace on Kilimanjaro, but noticeably slower than my regular pace. The same two or three of us were usually at the head of the group just behind the lead guide, ready to hike a little faster if only we could.
After five hours on the trail, including a lunch stop, we arrived at our first night's lodging in Phakding (elevation 8487'). The views are spectacular, and we haven't even got to the good stuff yet! Our lodge rooms are rustic twin-bed setups, with a dim overhead light and ensuite facilities. Alas, cold water only.
The lodge routine is almost identical to what we saw on the Kilimanjaro trip. Shortly after we arrive, the porters bring pans of warm "washing water" to our rooms, and then it's time for tea and cookies in the dining room (unlike Kili, we didn't have popcorn daily). Mornings start with "bed tea" (or coffee, or drinking chocolate) delivered to our room at the appointed hour, usually 6:00 am. On the Kili trip we slept in tents and could just reach out to grab the teacup; here in the lodges we have to get out of bed and open the door. Fifteen minutes later the porters bring washing water, and we have time to get dressed and pack our duffels before breakfast at 7:00 am. While we eat breakfast in the dining room, the porters are loading our duffels onto the dzopios. We are usually walking by about 7:45 am.
Continued in Part 2...